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The Gaye family has won a landmark case against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s smash hit – ‘Blurred Lines’. Williams, who wrote the song is said to have plagiarised Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song ‘Got to Give it Up’.
I am very familiar with Gaye’s tune; it makes an appearance on my ‘Funky Dance Tunes’ Spotify playlist, and it has been on my top track radar for many years. I am also familiar with Blurred Lines. It’s impossible not to be. Like another Williams hit ’Happy’, it’s a well crafted, overplayed pop tune.
I agree that the two songs have a similar ‘vibe’, which was Williams’ intention when he wrote the song, but they are not the same, not even remotely similar.
‘Got to Give it Up’ employs a slow soul-disco beat, with a ‘live jam’ almost party feel to it. There are lot’s of noises in the background, and a sense during the song that the musicians aren’t really sure what they are doing, that they are making it up as they go along, within certain guidelines for verse or chorus.
Blurred Lines exhibits far more polished feel as one would expect from a current pop hit, and it uses a disco-esque beat, but certainly not a copy of the 70’s tune. There may be some cowbells thrown in for good measure, and some background noises to create the feel of a fun, loose atmosphere, which makes the songs have the same fun feel. But this is about as far as the similarities go, and it is certainly not something you can copyright.
While the songs are similar in ‘vibe’, the song structures are very different, and each is clearly a unique creation which holds together itself as a distinct entity
Firstly, the songs are in different key signature. This sounds ridiculous I know, but given that this case has ruled in favour of the Gaye family, the jury is clearly lacking the most basic musical education, so let’s have a look at the basics.
As an arrangement, a song typically uses chords. These have not yet been copyrighted, because their invention predates copyright law, thank goodness. Likewise the traditional chord progressions and melodies used in different genres of music are fair game to a composer.
So we have our building blocks to play with, we needn’t fear using a chord that someone else has used before us in the history and evolution of music. When assessing plagiarism in any terms we must look at whether a song borrows so much from another that the two are hard to differentiate between.
Chord progression wise, Blurred Lines uses a very simple 1–5–1–5–1 structure all the ways through, in this case GMajor, D7, GMajor, D7 etc. The 5 chord (D7) is a dominant 7 resolving to the Root chord (G). Such a chord progression is called the dominant resolution, and is used through popular music, jazz, disco, funk, soul, rock, thrash metal, folk, you name it. This cannot be copyrighted either. The 5–1 resolution is the resolution of A-men you may have sung in church. This is the nature of harmonic composition, and again cannot be considered plagiarism by anyone who knows even the slightest thing about music.
So Blurred Lines is a very simple song, about as simple as you can get, probably the reason why it has such broad appeal. Put a piece of Jazz music in front of a group of musically illiterate people, and all they hear is a lot noise (Like giving Chateau Lafitte to a teenager). But to those who can appreciate the subtle harmonies, chord progressions and the complicated time signatures, jazz is musical bliss.
‘Got to Give it Up’ is a more complicated song in its chord progressions. Firstly it uses dominant seventh chords pretty much throughout, for a distinctly more jazzy feel. Blurred Lines doesn’t use a dominant seventh chord apart from the dominant 7th on the 5 chord, which as I have explained is an accepted part of basic harmonic music theory. ‘Got to Give it Up’ uses the Root chord (A) for the majority of the verse, the chorus uses 4, 5, 1, 2, 4, 5, 1, 2 and then it goes back to the root chord again trundling along.
So the songs have different chord progressions, and their melodies are also distinctly different, and their beats are also different. So what are they claiming Williams stole from Gaye? His vibe? Surely you cannot copyright a feel of a song. Maybe you can, and this is what is so worrying about this particular case.
Don’t Ever Go to Court – You Can’t Afford to Lose
I think the success of the Gaye family vs Pharrell Williams case was down to a number of things which play out in a court of law, and usually have nothing to do with the truth:
- Good lawyers (and good musicologists) arguing their case in court; the Gaye family’s was more credible to the jury
- The ability to play excerpts of one song as evidence (Blurred Lines), but to not admit Gaye’s song in anything other than sheet music (and have Thicke play it on the piano).
- The snippets of music played as evidence were so small that anyone would be able to find a similarity.
- The jury were older and probably sympathised more with Gaye’s family. (I doubt Thicke would be a popular defendant)
- The jury’s musical credentials; If they knew enough about music to make an informed decision about plagiarism, they wouldn’t have arrived at their decision.
Rather than a standard jury, they really needed expert witnesses panel in a case like this. A jury is in no position to decide on a musical matter unless they have demonstrated that they speak the language of music, have composed some of their own, or at the very least understand basic music theory. If not, they should be replaced with those that do. It’s like bringing in a load of people who don’t speak English and asking them to listen to a testimony in a foreign language, and then asking them to deliver a verdict. Would you feel ‘Happy’ at having your multimillion pound lawsuit decided by people who didn’t understand what they were hearing? I wouldn’t.
The music industry wants to protect its own, and to avoid killing off all creativity before it has started, it would do well to sort out this farcical situation sooner rather than later.
To single out ‘Blurred Lines’ as having plagiarised ‘Got to Give it Up’ is frankly ridiculous, and I can see why Thicke and Williams refused to settle out of court. The Gaye family are relieved to have won the case, and rightly so; had they lost they would have suffered significant financial losses. They have latched onto some comments made by the defendants when drunk, and have used them to extract money from what is a popular and highly successful record. They must also be aware that Williams is a successful musician with his tune ‘Happy’ having received significant airplay, so there is cash there to be extracted (see below).
But musical inspiration; channeling the spirit of current and past musical masters, is nothing new. It certainly can’t be called plagiarism. Where do people think music comes from, for God’s sake? Is it lodged inside people’s brains waiting to worm its way out? Perhaps we should be asking the question
“When a songwriter writes a song, where doe the music come from?”
Good question. Let’s ask our jury.
My Sweet Lord
I remember reading a similar case where George Harrison’s tune My Sweet Lord was deemed by a jury of equally musically illiterate people, to have copied She’s So Fine. The case was brought (not surprisingly) by a struggling record company which went into receivership in the process of trying to extract the money from the wealthy Beatle. Had My Sweet Lord been written by a nobody and made no money, no court action would have occurred. The two songs may have similar melody lines for a part of the song, but surely anyone who has ever tried to write, or has even successfully written a song realises that some lines just do sound similar, this is the nature of music and melody.
Am I to be prosecuted for plagiarism in writing this article because I have constructed sentences which others have used before me? These are the building blocks we use in communicating, and we must accept that some sound better than others. Music has a similar language which also keeps expanding and growing; building on that which went before. It’s called evolution.
After a long, protracted battle, with Thicke and Williams refusing to settle out of court, the Gaye family have managed to extract their money. I hope it brings them at least a little bit of satisfaction because in seeking financial compensation in such a cynical and opportunistic way, they have royally screwed the music business, something I’m sure Marvin Gaye would not condone for any reason.
Pharrell Williams is unlikely to be even remotely bothered about the case. He understands that there is no limit to the songs that he can write. He just gets “happy” and the ideas flow to him. Meanwhile, money vampires like Janis Gaye will continue to use the law, and their perception of lack to get what they see is rightfully theirs. Even though no lyrics, melody, or chord progressions were copied, she still has the gall to say:
I hope people understand that this means Marvin deserves credit for what he did back in 1977
People should try to be creative themselves, rather than riding on the back of other people’s success. The Gaye family, hot on the heels of their court success are after more blood. They are now claiming that Williams’ hit song Happy is also a copy of Gaye’s song ‘Ain’t that Peculiar’. If they go to court, I sincerely hope for the good of the music industry that they lose. Writing a song with an eye and an ear on copyright infringement, doesn’t sound like a recipe for a bestseller.
If I were a music business CEO, I would be gathering my equivalent of the Cobra committee, and working together with my compatriots and Williams and Thicke to get this ruling turned around ASAP. Throw money at it, and lock this legally sanctioned fraud down.
This case, however ridiculous it seems, sets a precedent which could be very damaging indeed to the music business, and make copyright lawyers everywhere, very wealthy indeed.
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